How to Get Students to Actually Read Their Bibles!

Like most youth workers, I’m always looking for ways to encourage my students to get into reading Scripture. (If you’ve read my work for a while, you already know that I don’t tell them to read their Bibles every day.) So when I fell into a crazy, simple and powerful idea about Scripture reading, I knew I had to give it a shot.

The craziest part? It kind of worked. I also knew I had to share it with you, so let’s get started with this:

Is it possible that different parts of the Bible were meant to be read in different ways? (I think yes.)

Here’s what I mean. Obviously, the individual Psalms sort of stand alone. If you wanted, you could read one Psalm—one chapter—at a time and take home the meaning each intended.

But what about the rest of the Bible? Is reading the Bible in daily chapter-sized chunks really the best way to fully engage with its stories?

The epic story of the Exodus reads like the script to a blockbuster film. You don’t watch movies like that in 10-minute chunks.

The book of Jonah reads like a short story or novella. You don’t read those in multiple sittings spread out across the course of days.

And my favorite example? What about the letters of Paul? They’re letters, and they’re written like letters.

Who are the people who receive a letter from a loved one and then read it a paragraph at a time for a week? Yet, that’s how students are trained—purposefully or not—to read the book of Philippians.
Is it possible that students would comprehend Philippians better if they read it like a letter instead of a bunch of randomly chunked sentences?

We tried it and the verdict was a pretty unanimous yes.

So, if you gave me the choice of asking a student to read a chapter of Philippians every day for four days or reading Philippians in its entirety in one sitting and then not opening their Bible for three more days?

I’d choose the second one.

(It would be better still if they’d read the letter in its entirety every day for four days.)

WHY “CHUNKING” THE BIBLE CAN MAKE IT MORE DIFFICULT TO COMPREHEND

The biggest reason students don’t read their Bibles as much as we’d like isn’t because they are too busy or because they don’t take their faith seriously.

It’s because after three or four days of reading something that they do not understand, they get frustrated and give up.

Go ahead. Turn to a random chapter in Leviticus or Revelation or Acts and read it. By itself, without context and without the gift of your prior knowledge, it probably wouldn’t make any sense.

If someone decided to start reading Harry Potter in the third chapter of the fourth book, that would be a curious decision, yet that’s how many of our students experience Scripture.

There are stories and arcs in the Bible that necessarily build off of one another. You and I are armed with the experience and knowledge to understand where a particular chapter is coming from and where it’s going. In that context, it makes sense.

Most of our students don’t have that context yet.

WHY “CHUNKING” SCRIPTURE CAN MAKE IT LOSE ITS MEANING

Our students have been indoctrinated by sermons and devotional books that largely unpack the meaning of a verse or a handful of verses. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. I do it too.

But when students get used to exclusively unpacking the meaning of individual verses, they miss something else that’s just as important. They miss the meaning of the larger story.

A DIFFERENT WAY FOR STUDENTS TO READ SCRIPTURE

Feel free to challenge students to read a Psalm a day. Even if they miss a few days a month, they should be able to do that twice a year. But when it comes time to read the actual stories of the Bible or the letters of the New Testament, I’d encourage you to try something new and different. Ask them to read larger chunks of the Bible in one sitting.

Many of my students would tell you that it’s easier to find one 20-minute block to read through the book of James than it is to find five six-minute windows when they can give their full attention.

It’s also probably a more effective way to increase a teenager’s understanding and comprehension.

At the very least, it’s worth a shot.

Is this something you’re going to try? Leave a comment and let me know.  

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Aaron Helman
Aaron Helman is on a mission to help end the epidemic of youth worker burnout. He writes at Smarter Youth Ministry to help youth workers with their biggest frustrations – things like leading volunteers, managing money, and communicating effectively. He is also the youth minister at Firehouse Youth Ministries in South Bend, Indiana.